I have spent the better part of my three and a half years at Yale working with administrators and representing the student body, but you will not find my name anywhere among the 3,017 signatures submitted to University President Richard Levin on Friday by the “United Students at Yale.”
USAY claims to represent students at Yale, but I have never felt represented by most of their positions, and I know that my views would not be welcome at any USAY meeting. USAY masquerades as a productive venue for student voice, but perhaps it would be more accurate to call the organization “United Democratic Pro-Union Students at Yale.”
Unfortunately, I am neither a Democrat nor in all cases pro-union.
Interestingly, in the article printed last week about USAY’s activities (“USAY struggles to assert legitimacy,” 2/19), most people who spoke negatively about the group chose not to be identified. I write freely and speak on the record, but having personally experienced USAY’s tactics, I sympathize with those of my colleagues who value their anonymity.
A few weeks ago, I heard a knock on my Swing Space door. In walked a USAY member seeking signatures for their notorious petition. As I always do with USAY members who approach me, I began to question my visitor regarding the vague language of the petition and its ultimate purpose. I noticed that the solicitor seemed a little uncomfortable speaking to me; when I introduced myself and asked his name, I discovered that he already knew my identity and clearly did not wish to remain in my room longer than necessary.
You see, I have never been shy about disliking USAY. I suppose I am less of a threat now, no longer carrying my “YCC Vice President” badge, but I guess I am still known by a few around town.
One of USAY’s most frustrating tactics is using universal issues such as financial aid reform as covers for other more controversial issues like canceling classes on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: USAY worked closely with the MLK Coalition, and the groups shared many members.
I was on the losing end of that battle last year. I am completely in favor of honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. Day with a variety of important events, but I think Yale has opened a can of worms by arbitrarily choosing one federal holiday to recognize by canceling classes and disrupting the academic calendar.
The biggest problem with USAY is its inherent lack of legitimacy. The Yale College Council has many problems and is often rightly criticized for balancing too many commitments, but as Yale’s elected student government, it does have a mandated voice with the Yale administration.
USAY claims that Yale’s administration is unresponsive and needlessly conservative. My personal experience, however, reveals a different situation. Most administrators are thrilled to work with informed students willing to invest a little time and effort. It is my experience that Levin is always ready for good conversation, and when the new dean of financial aid arrived last year, I needed send only one e-mail to discover her eagerness to meet with students and to revive the Financial Aid Standing Committee.
As for official venues for student voice, we already have an underused and underestimated system of University Standing Committees. Every year, the YCC accepts applications and conducts interviews to choose student members for committees committed to issues ranging from financial aid to dining services to library policies. Of course, there is much room for improvement in the current system, especially in enforcing committee accountability to the administration. Ultimately, however, students should take advantage of the existing system and question the real nature of “student voice” before jumping on the USAY bandwagon.
It is our privilege and duty to make Yale a better place during our brief time here, but let’s work together through the appropriate and most effective means available. If you have a problem with the monolith we call Yale — and there are many who do — conduct a little research on your issue of concern, find the appropriate administrator or committee, have a few conversations, talk to your YCC representatives and officers, and see where those measures take you.
I hope you will be pleasantly surprised by the change you can effect with a little effort in the right direction.
In the meantime, I urge you to think twice about signing any more petitions from the United Democratic Pro-Union Students at Yale.
Leah Zimmerman is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. She is a former vice president of the Yale College Council.